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Haas: F1 Team Needs To Pick Up The Pace

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 25 2018

The Haas F1 driver lineup of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean returns in tact for 2018. Testing for that season begins in Barcelona this coming week. (Photos courtesy of Haas F1)

Preseason testing for the 2018 FIA Formula One World Championship gets underway Monday at Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya, with the series’ only American team returning for its third campaign featuring the same driver lineup from last year amid relatively unchanged technical regulations.

Haas F1 Team’s Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will take the wheel of the Haas VF-18 during eight days of testing stretched over two weeks from Monday through March 9 at the 2.893-mile/4.655-kilometer/16-turn track in Spain.

And the working orders from industrialist Gene Haas, team founder and chairman, are machine-tool precise. Haas wants to close the competitive gap with Scuderia Ferrari _the famed and flamboyant Italian organization with whom his team shares a power unit, gearbox and overall technical support.

“It looks like everyone is going to be better,” Haas said during a recent interview. “We identified our weak spots and Guenther Steiner (team principal) and I had a good heart-to-heart talk on that one in Mexico City (last fall) about what direction we were going to take and how we were going to improve.

“It’s no secret we use a lot of Ferrari equipment, so we’re using them as our baseline. We need to be within a half-second of the Ferraris in order for us to be competitive. We weren’t last year. I would say we were a second to a second-and-a-half slower than the Ferraris. Overall, we were maybe two seconds off the pole qualifiers, so we need to knock a second off that if we really want to be competitive.”

Ferrari again will pair Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time F1 World Driving Champion, alongside 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen of Finland.

With that, Haas F1 Team will perform a physical unveil of the Haas VF-18 Monday

The Haas VF-18 will take to the track for practice in Spain.

morning on the pit lane outside its garage stall, with Grosjean and Magnussen in their Alpinestars firesuits pulling the cover off the car. They are scheduled to pose for photographs with the car for approximately 10 minutes before heading back into the garage, where they’ll join crewmembers in preparation for the track going hot.

Frenchman Grosjean has been with Haas F1 Team since its debut in 2016, with 2018 marking his seventh full season in the series. Magnussen, of Denmark, returns to the same team for the first time in his career after spending single seasons with McLaren (2014) and Renault (2016), respectively.

That continuity behind the steering wheel extends throughout the race car, as the VF-18 is an evolution of the team’s second car, the VF-17, which took Haas F1 to an eighth-place finish in the 2017 constructors standings. Forty-seven points were scored by the VF-17 during Haas F1’s sophomore season, 18 points more than the total earned in the organization’s inaugural 2016 campaign.

The lower and wider car of 2017 carries over into 2018, but with the significant addition of the halo cockpit protection device and a drastic reduction in the sharkfin. The added weight and higher center of gravity created by the halo, along with a change in the car’s overall aerodynamics, will be repeatedly analyzed by engineers as Grosjean and Magnussen turn laps at the home of the Spanish Grand Prix.

Teams use these two weeks to prepare for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, where in a month’s time the 69th Formula One championship begins. While the title fight likely will be among the big-three teams of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, the midfield will be stout with seven teams neck-and-neck as Haas F1 battles Force India, Williams, Renault, Toro Rosso, McLaren and Sauber.

After an offseason of CAD/CAM software engineering where theories are vetted on a 60-percent scale-model car in the wind tunnel, testing means real-world application.

Haas formed Haas Automation, Inc., in 1983 and in the 35 years since has turned it into the largest machine tool builder in North America with a footprint encompassing more than 60 countries and 1,300 employees. Haas Automation manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and rotary tables and indexers. All Haas products are built in the company’s 1.1-million square-foot/102,000 square-meter manufacturing facility in Oxnard, Calif., and distributed through a worldwide network of Haas Factory Outlets.

Motorsports has played a key role in that growth, along with Stewart-Haas Racing _ the Kannapolis, N.C.-based NASCAR team Haas co-owns with three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart _ having won two titles and 42 races, including last year’s Daytona 500.

That success prompted Haas to venture into Formula One, where in addition to creating the first American team since 1986, he uses the worldwide platform to build Haas Automation into a premium, global brand.

Haas covered a variety of racing and business-related topics while previewing the globe-trotting Formula One campaign. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: While car design remains relatively unchanged, there is a new rule limiting teams to three engines per year, as opposed to the four engines used last year. The schedule also has grown to 21 races, one more than 2017. Will this regulation limiting the number of engines you can use in a single season put an ever greater emphasis on reliability?

GENE HAAS: “I think it’s like anything else _ the more seasons you have with an engine package, the more reliable it’s going to become. I have no doubts they can do the season with three engines. Plus, there’s not going to be this tremendous need for upgrades because the engine horsepower has somewhat plateaued. They’re getting about as much performance out of the current dimensional package as you can.

“I don’t think Mercedes or Renault is going to be that much farther ahead or behind Ferrari. I think they are all within a half-a-percent of one other. I think from a reliability standpoint, the Ferraris are excellent.”

QUESTION: Offseason chatter continued on whether or not an American driver is ready to compete in Formula One. What’s your take on that hot-button issue?

GENE HAAS: “Well, I’m pretty sure I know where that talk came from. Guenther Steiner, our team principal, was asked about having an American driver in Formula One and, more specifically, with Haas F1 Team. He responded by saying something to the effect that it wasn’t at the top of our priority list, and things kind of took off in a bunch of different directions as people made a bunch of assumptions.

“The fact is that we’re still learning here in Formula One, and bringing on a driver who needs to learn about Formula One probably isn’t the best thing for us or them. I felt like there were times last year where our drivers were better than our cars. So, we need to step up, but we know where we need to improve thanks in large part to the experience of our drivers.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to having an American driver, but the reality is that of the American drivers who have a superlicense and could actually compete in F1, they should really be with a team that can serve as their benchmark rather than the other way around.

“Now, we fully expect to eventually be in that position _ ideally, sooner rather than later _ but this is only our third year and we need to improve in a variety of areas, and Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are playing a big part in that improvement because of their experience. They help us, rather quickly, determine if the course we’re taking is a proper one or if we need to re-think our approach. That experience is invaluable as we look to become a team that can eventually challenge for podiums instead of just points

“This debate about American drivers really isn’t a debate. I believe in American drivers _ my NASCAR team is full of them, and we’ve won a lot of races and championships. Obviously, the discipline is different, but sure, there are competent American drivers who can compete in Formula One. But we’re not ready for that yet, and with the limited amount of testing teams have, getting anyone up-to-speed who hasn’t already been a part of a development program would be hard. I think that’s the point Guenther was trying to make.”

QUESTION: How helpful is it to go into this season with the same driver lineup and _with the exception of the addition of the halo _ a rules package regarding car design that is relatively unchanged?

GENE HAAS:  “We’ve eliminated a lot of the variables where we knew we were weak, and we knew where we needed to focus. We need to be able to go to the majority of races and put the car down on the track and be fast. We’ve focused on what it’s going to take to get the cars to be consistent and to close that gap between the top cars.”

QUESTION: How did the pairing of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen work out in 2017, and what can fans expect from them this season?

GENE HAAS: “I’ve said it before _ I thought our drivers were better than our cars in 2017. Grosjean is a very, very fast driver. His driving style is very different from Magnussen’s style. Grosjean is more hard-charging, braking and going through the turns. Magnussen is a little smoother going through those turns. They just have different driving styles, but they’re both very aggressive and both want to win and you have to have that kind of killer mentality to score points. You just have to. When the opportunity is there, you just have to go for it. That’s hard to find in drivers. They are all that way. They won’t give an inch to anybody and when it comes down to it, you really have to want to win, or at least score points. That’s what we have with our two drivers.”

QUESTION: Haas F1 Team accumulated 18 more points in its second season than it did in its debut campaign, thanks in large part to both drivers scoring. Did each driver’s competitiveness and ability to achieve points push each other to perform at a higher level?

GENE HAAS: “Our drivers’ competitiveness works well, and it’s not a negative because they work well together. They know what they’re doing, so I think that they kind of help each other, but they are competing against each other. It’s pretty amazing how the two cars are almost always close to each other in qualifying and practice, so you know the drivers are extremely capable. If we give them fast cars, they’ll move right up the ladder.”

QUESTION: What would you like your team to achieve in 2018?

GENE HAAS: “We want to solve these technical issues that are holding us back. Tires are the toughest issue we have because you have to keep the tires in a certain temperature range, but how you keep the tires in that temperature range is how you handle your downforce and your drag and how you handle sliding the tires. The tires are very sensitive to downforce, overheating and sliding, but in order to get the tires right you have to have the right chassis and the right aero. Without all of that working right, the cars become very difficult for the drivers and you can’t expect them to make up for a car that just doesn’t have the capability of holding the track.”

QUESTION: Looking back on the team’s second F1 season, how do you assess it?

GENE HAAS: “It was a learning year. Our first year, everything was new and everything has to be mentally digested about how do we go about racing in Formula One. In the second year, we understood a lot more in terms of what we were missing, and it became obvious midyear that our cars just weren’t fast enough to really be competitive. Some tracks they were quick, but other tracks they weren’t and the question was, ‘Why did that occur?’ and ‘What are we going to do about that in the future?’ and that’s really a big pivot point for us going forward _ how to solve those issues.”

QUESTION: How was your team’s second F1 season different from your first?

GENE HAAS: “In our first season, we were extremely lucky to do as well as we did because in the second year there were a lot of races that we just felt lost. You would think that in the second year we would’ve been better at that, but I felt that we were actually worse and it became more obvious about what we had to do to find what we were missing. If you don’t know how to solve some of these issues, you go out and you just have a really bad day, no matter what you do.

“That’s really frustrating because you’re supposed to be out there doing your Free Practice 1 and 2 and you should get better. But it’s like you would go out there and do Free Practice 1 and 2 and the third one would be worse and you’re going, ‘Wow, what are we missing here?’ and we would ask, ‘Well, is it a driver issue? Is it a car issue? Is it a tire issue?’ and I think we’ve been able to narrow it down to determine it’s a car issue that effects the tires which makes the driver not able to perform.”

QUESTION: Were there some elements that you found to be easier and were there other elements that ended up being more difficult?

GENE HAAS: “Nothing was easier. It was more difficult and I think it was more difficult from the standpoint that the competition was more intense. The first year it seemed like we had more teams that were having challenges. It seemed like in the second year a lot of those teams sorted out their problems and all of a sudden they got a lot faster. The spread between the top cars and the bottom cars when we first started was four to five seconds, and now it’s down to three seconds. The field is tightening up and everyone is getting better.”

QUESTION: Was there anything about your sophomore season in F1 that took you by surprise?

GENE HAAS: “The surprising fact is that these very, very small differences in the cars can completely change the characteristics of how the car drives. We’re not talking a lot. The one issue is tires. If you get the tires a few degrees out of their window, the tires can almost change completely and then once they are out of their window, how do you get them back in their window? The bigger teams are very aware of those issues and they spend a huge amount of their effort and time making sure those tires are where they need to be.”

QUESTION: What was the team’s highlight reel moment of the 2017 season?

GENE HAAS: “We had two races where we scored double points _ Monaco and Japan. Those were good and I was hoping that we could do better near the end of the year but, ultimately, we didn’t. I felt like we were 10 points shy of where we really needed to be, but it also brought into focus where those areas are that we need to work on.”

QUESTION: How do you think Haas F1 Team was perceived before the start of last year, and what do you think the perception is now?

GENE HAAS: “Now we’re just one of the teams, to the point where if we’re in front of Lewis Hamilton or whoever, they don’t go, ‘Who are these people?’ They know who we are. I think it’s good. In two years, we’ve survived. We’ve shown we can compete at this level and the teams around us were all within a few points of sixth, seventh and eighth there at the end of the season. That was an interesting place to be, and I’m sure the teams in front of us were very happy that they finished in front of us because now it’s like they have another competitor to deal with.”

QUESTION: Before taking on the challenge of Formula One, there was the business case for Haas Automation to enter the sport. You said you wanted Haas Automation to become a premium, global brand via F1. While those brands aren’t built overnight, do you feel that growing Haas Automation globally is on-pace thanks to Haas F1 Team?

GENE HAAS: “I would say half the time at machine tool trade shows, people want to talk about the car. People have a very big interest in the racing part of it and also from the machine tool side of it. So, it kind of brings it all together in terms of how they see us and the products we sell.”

QUESTION: Motorsports plays a major role in Haas Automation’s marketing. How does Haas Automation use its endeavors in F1 and in NASCAR to showcase its products?

GENE HAAS: “In racing, it’s all about performance and that performance translates into winning. When you win, people notice, so that’s the marketing plan. If we can compete at these high levels, that gets us the notoriety we want for Haas Automation. On the marketing side of it, we bring customers to the races and that works really well because _ especially in Formula One _ it’s pretty much impossible to even get into the pits unless you know a team, so we’re bringing a lot of our special customers only to these racetracks. It makes them feel special, and that translates into their perception of us and how they relate to people in their industry.

“I think it just kind of builds on itself that this is a top-notch team in association with a top-notch machine-tool builder and that’s the whole thing _ the association of quality, performance and winning machine tools. That’s led to some good B2B opportunities. We do it in NASCAR a lot, and a lot of our competing teams use Haas Automation equipment. We’ve had Formula One teams ask about how to procure equipment from us, and if we weren’t there, that’s probably something that wouldn’t have happened.”

QUESTION: Your NASCAR endeavors are focused on the U.S. market while your F1 interests promote Haas Automation globally. Are you seeing customers follow both Stewart-Haas Racing and Haas F1 Team?

GENE HAAS: “At Haas Automation’s headquarters in Oxnard, Calif., we track website hits and you can definitely see spikes when people will look at our machine tool site and then go to the racing part of it and want to keep up-to-date with what happened over the race weekend and, specifically, how we did in Formula One. There’s a lot of interest and it’s good to keep people engaged _ not just on the machine tool side, but on the racing side as well and merging those things together.”

QUESTION: Is there any transfer of technology or methodology between Haas F1 Team and Stewart-Haas Racing and vice versa?

GENE HAAS: “We’re a NASCAR team and here we are doing Formula One. There’s a lot of similar technologies and I’ve even had a lot of people from the Formula One side wanting to know how NASCAR guys do this, so there’s a lot of interest. You have two sports that are at the top of their fields _ stock car versus open-wheel racing _ but they seem to have a lot of interest in how each of these entities have evolved over the years and what can be gleaned from the two series.”

QUESTION: You grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, attended college in Southern California and started Haas Automation in your garage. The company is the largest machine tool-builder n North America, your NASCAR organization has two titles and you’re overseeing the first American F1 team in 30 years. Are you able to appreciate the scope of those achievements or are you constantly looking forward?

GENE HAAS: “As soon as the last race is over, you have to prove yourself at the next race, and it’s a similar thing in the machine tool business in the sense that our customers are using these machines in all kinds of different environments. And it’s very frustrating because as much as we design them and get them to do what we think the customer wants them to do, they make them do something we don’t think they are capable of and then we see the failures. Almost like in racing where you have all of these grand plans for the next year and then you find out that the competition is ahead of you, so it’s a challenge.

“But I think that challenge _ whether it’s in racing or in building machine tools, that challenge is what I thrive on _ the environment is changing and I have to adapt to it and I have to make a better product. It really strains the brain to think, ‘OK, here is the challenge. Now, how do we adapt to it?’^”

QUESTION: You own race teams competing at the pinnacle of NASCAR and open-wheel racing while simultaneously running a billion-dollar company. How do you manage it all?

GENE HAAS: “It is a balance. It’s a constant challenge of testing all of your abilities _ your stamina, your resources, your ability to outdo somebody else and win a race, and it’s very difficult. The NASCAR side works pretty well without me. Those guys know what they’re doing and have been doing it for a long time. We’ve won a couple of championships, so I have a lot of confidence in them. We’re still learning on the Formula One side. We don’t want to be in the mid-pack forever. We want to get on top of the mid-pack. That’s our goal.”

QUESTION: When did the racing bug bite you, and when did you meld your passion for racing with the machine tool business?

GENE HAAS: “I was in high school when I went to work for LeGrand race cars. One of my starting jobs there was machining magnesium wheels for race cars. I was 16-years-old when (Red) LeGrand said, ‘Here’s this lathe over here. I’ll show you how to make some wheels.’ So he showed me and gave me a couple of tips and I’d say a month later I was sitting there machining wheels out of magnesium by myself. I could set the machines up and run the machines, so I was the ‘magnesium machine guy’ there and that’s what I did.

“It doesn’t take long until you get involved with the racers there. The highest form of racing at that time was Formula 5000. I actually went to the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1975 followed by the Formula One Grand Prix in 1976, which went on for almost 10 years. I saw some of that high-profile racing right after college.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 25 2018
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